30 January 2007

Coming Soon

Angola is coming soon. Sorry for the delay. I've been quite busy with two jobs--teaching, and still working at the restaurant. All goes well in the world of waiting tables, as long as I don't think too much about the redneck slobs that only tipped me nine percent recently.

At least they didn't vomit in the bathroom like the last time they dined at the place.

Teaching is going well too, although due to my sickness and the inability of Southerners to deal with 1/2 inch of snow, class has been sporadic lately. (Seriously, they cancelled class yesterday).

More soon. Thanks for reading.

24 January 2007

While I've Been Sick

When Father Was Away On Business
The Widow Of St. Pierre
Hollow City
Motorcycle Diaries
Curb Your Enthusiasm (final season)
Curb Your Enthusiasm (season 1, disc 2)
The Office (Season 1, British Version)
The Yes Men
The Weatherman
Leaving Las Vegas
The Illusionist
Sarah Silverman "Jesus is Magic"

21 January 2007


I've been looking for good books about Andorra in the local libraries. I have been unable to find any books at all, let alone any good ones. So, for now, Andorra is going out the back door.

Here's some interesting information about this tiny little country:

-- It is only about 1/5 the size of Rhode Island (181 square miles total)

--Population is at about 70,000, less people than Asheville, NC

--The country boasts the highest life expectancy in the world, about 83.51 years.

--It is located between Spain and France (see map above) and is official ruled by a joint rule shared by France and Spain. It is, however, a parliamentary representative democracy

--Andorra was the 184th country to enter the United Nations, in 1993.

--Andorra has no taxes and no army.

Enough about that. On to Angola.

This project is looking more daunting with each day, and I'm not sure that I will ever finish it. For the time being, however, it's a good idea.

18 January 2007

Down with Algeria

Well, I've had enough of Algeria. All the books I've found around here (besides the initial book on the Sahara) have been terribly boring tomes about Algerian history. And so, we move on to Andorra, which, unfortunately, will also be a bit difficult.

I've decided that Andorra, being the silly little country that it is, only warrants the reading of some newspaper articles and a wikipedia entry. I haven't even been able to find any books around here that deal with the place, so this will have to suffice.

In other news, I will be returning to Spain and Morocco this summer. I have just bought a ticket for May 15. I will be returning on August 3.

11 January 2007

Algeria (1/2)

The first thing one notices about Algeria, at least on a map, is that it is large. Very very large. It is the second largest country in Africa (after Sudan), and shares borders with Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Mali, Niger and Mauritania. It also has an extensive Mediterranan coastline.

The country's geography is quite varied--from the coast one moves down through fertile lands, towering mountains, and the Sahara Desert. **An important note regarding the Sahara: The Sahara, contrary to public imagination, is not one big, continuing and impassable desert, but rather a number of smaller (at time quite large) deserts that spread across the upper third of the African continent. The Sahara is at times as we often imagine it (rolling sand dunes). More often, however, the Sahara presents itself in an even more barren-seeming fashion--in dark blacks and browns, rocky and inhospitable.

I recently traveled to the Sahara (see writing on Morocco), and so was quite interested to read about Algeria, where the desert figures so prominently in the national landscape. And so, my first Algeria-related book was "Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert," by William Langewiesche, a foreign correspondent for Atlantic Monthly.

In this book, Langewiesche travels throughout the Sahara in a variety of conveyances--public bus, taxi, boat (on the edges of the desert). He spends a great deal of his trip in Algeria (it really is quite big). The book is enthralling at times, and Langewiesche's descriptions of the desert--both physical and metaphysical--are at times wonderful. Similarly, his refusal to romantacize the people of the Sahara is refreshing and enlightening. Take, for example, the opening lines of the book:

"Do not regret the passing of the camel and the caravan. The Sahara has changed, but it remains a desert without a compromise, the world in its extreme. There is no place as dry and hot and hostile. There are few places as huge and wild. You will not diminish it by admitting that its inhabitants can drive, and that they are neither wiser nor purer nor stronger than you. It is fairer to judge them squarely as modern people and as your equals. They were born by chance in a hard land and in a hard time in its history. You will do them no justice by pretending otherwise. Do not worry that their world, or yours, has grown too small. Despite its roads, its trucks, its television, the Sahara remains unsubdued."

At the same time, Langewiesche's attempt to distance himself as a narrator in the book, as well as his semi-omniscient telling of his tale, can become quite stale at times. The author has the habit, at times annoying, of reinterpreting every bit of dialogue that he provides. Take, for example, the following conversation with an American man he meets while traveling:

Chuck said, "What does it matter? It's all desert out here anyway."
He meant the world away from home, including Britain.

These types of conversations, and Langewiesche's somewhat condescending tone, do get a bit old. However, he recovers force through his telling of the desert, his vivid rendering of a harsh land, and his explanations of how the Sahara is growing, spreading quickly over the African continent. Interestingly, as he shows, much of today's Sahara was once fertile grasslands. Cave paintings in now barren lands show hunters, wild animals, and herds of grazing cattle. Environments change, however, and continue to do so, and today such scenes are absent from the lands of the Sahara.

In addition to Algeria, Langewiesche travels through Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal. He explores the desert in its myriad forms, crossing national boundaries. He has adventures and nearly dies. He gets sick and suffers from dehydration. And, while he does learn a great deal from the Sahara ("the desert teaches by taking away"), I left the book most affected by a simple lesson, straightforward and lacking in all romantacism, taught to him by some Algerian men early in the book:

"He explained that the bus from the M'Zab did not go all the way. The Safari was the name of the hard-sprung truck to which eventually I would have to transfer to cross the mountainous central desert. He said, 'Why don't you fly?'
'Because I want to see the desert up close.'
'Buy a postcard.'
'But I want to feel the desert.'
'It feels bad.'"

09 January 2007

Winter Wonderland

I headed out to Burnsville last night with Ellen. Ellen's friends have a house out there (about 45 minutes from Asheville). The place is great--it's out in the mountains; a small place that sits on 15 acres of land. The snow started coming down this morning, hard and heavy, and we were almost stranded out there. But, with some willingness to face danger, we escaped and survived to tell the tale.

More soon. Still working on Algeria.

07 January 2007

Fine Dining in Asheville


Until the other day, I knew next to absolutely nothing about Albania. If threatened by an ogre brandishing a flaming stick, I could have possibly conjured up a basic idea of the country's geographical placement. Having met people from Albania before, I could have spoken briefly on the ubiquity of automatic weapons and organized crime. That's about it.

As part of my recent plan to read a book about every country in the world (see below), I cracked open a library copy of "Biografi" the other day, by New Zealand author Lloyd Jones. The book details Jones' efforts to track down Petar Shapallo, an Albanian dentist that, sometime during the reign of Enver Hoxha (leader from 1944 to 1985, previously leader of the anti-fascist resistance), was forced to act as the dictator's "stunt double." This unassuming dentist, through no fault of his own, was made to undergo plastic surgery so as to look like Hoxha. His family was killed, as were all those who played a role in his transformation (plastic surgeons, tailors, etc.). For twenty years, this man was kept in captivity, leaving his plush cell only for occasional public appearances. This nightmare only ended in 1985, when Hoxha finally died. Shapallo was sent off back into the world armed with a map and little else.

Shortly after Hoxha's death, the Albanian government opened its previously closed borders, allowing its citizens to emigrate if they wished. The cowed and frightened Albanians slowly trickled toward the borders and the embassies until overcoming their fear. At this point, the trickle became a deluge and the embassies and ports and border passes were swarmed with Albanians desperate to escape their country.

Joining them was Shapallo, who snuck over the fence of the German embassy, hoping to emigrate to Germany. Unfortunately, he ended up getting the shit beaten out of him, on account of everyone thought that he was the ghost of Hoxha, coming to punish them for abandoning their country.

At this point, Shapallo told his story to a government official, and the story eventually was passed around the world until it finally graced the pages of the New Yorker Magazine. Jones read a small blurb about Shapallo (in the "Talk of the Town" section of the magazine), and, his curiousity piqued, headed off to Albania to track down the now-missing Shapallo.

Jones eventually does find Shapallo, now an old man. His face is disfigured, by his own hand (to destroy his similarity to the now deceased dictator) and he suffers from a number of ailments. Both before and after finding Shapallo, Jones travels around the country, and his vivid descriptions of the ruined Albania of the early 90's are heartbreaking.

Enjoying only a nominal democracy, and still reeling from the destruction that was Hoxha's leadership, the people are without food or basic necessities. Riots occur outside breadshops and people routinely starve or die from lack of medicine. Entire towns have been abandoned, and the eerie bunkers of the the militaristic past still fill the countryside. It is a sobering image.

Now, as for some basic facts about the country--

It is difficult to say the important religions of the nation, as all religion was outlawed during the communist dictatorship of Hoxha. According to Wikipedia, "Albania has been proclaimed as the only officially atheist country in the world, claiming the religion to be Albanianism."

Geographically, the country is bordered by Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Greece. Italy lies just across the Adriatic Sea. Albania has two distinct coastlines, one on the Adriatic Sea, and the other on the Ionian Sea.

The Capital City is Tirana.

Curious fact: Nodding your head in Albania means "NO", not "YES".

That's all for now. Next up: Algeria.

04 January 2007


Today, I begin my project with the nation of Afghanistan. (For more information on what I'm doing, see below).

Oddly, my search in the local Borders Bookstore for books on Afghanistan turned up little of interest. I expected to find a slew of books, but maybe people in this area just aren't that interested. Interestingly, a search of Borders online turns up something like 34,000 books related to Afghanistan.

Anyway, I did find a book that turned out to be very compelling, and in many ways perfectly suited to my interests. The book is entititled "The Places In Between," and is by Rory Stewart, a journalist-type from Scotland.

Mr. Stewart's book chronicles his time walking across Afghanistan, shortly after the fall of the Taliban, in January 2002. Previous to his time in Afghanistan, he had already walked across Iran, Pakistan, India and Nepal. His trip, if you can imagine the geography, was broken up shortly after he began walking by the refusal of the Taliban to allow him to enter the country. And so, after walking across Iran, then hopping over to Pakistan to continue his walk to Nepal, he returned to finish the middle section of his route.

Now, as for a few basic facts regarding Afghanistan:

- Afghanistan shares borders with the following countries: China, iran, Pakistan, Tajikstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

- There are a number of ethnic groups in Afghanistan, including Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Aimak, Turkmen, and Baloch.

- Afghanistan is approximately 80% Sunni Muslim. Most of the rest of the population is Shia Muslim.

- The languages of Afghanistan are:

Afghan Persian or Dari (official) 50%, Pashtu (official) 35%, Turkic languages (primarily Uzbek and Turkmen) 11%, 30
minor languages (primarily Balochi and Pashai) 4%, much bilingualism.

(Source: CIA Factbook)

Considering the number of languages and ethnicities of Afghanistan, as well as the sheer physicality of the country, it really is amazing to see the route that Mr. Stewart took across the country. He started in Herat, on the western edge of the country, and walked straight across, through mountain ranges (in January) to Kabul. It would seem that his previous travel and work experience had provided him with a basic knowledge of Afghan Persian, so this was obviously helpful, but it obvious throughout the book that linguistic troubles were not absent from his journey.

Even more incredible is trying to imagine the absolute hubris of nearly any attempt to control this country by outside powers. Along the way, Stewart stays in villages, accepting (sometimes demanding) the hospitality of the local leaders. What emerges as he moves from one settlement to the next is a vision of a land in which local leadership is of the gravest importance, inter-community squabbles and struggles are omnipresent, and any sense of nationhood is often completely absent.

What also emerges is a picture of a rich, ancient and extremely diverse history and culture; one which can in no way be contained within cheap prejudices or facile stereotypes. What also emerges is the fact that Rory Stewart is ridiculously cool.

See also: The Kite Runner, the tale of a Pashtun boy and his Hazara servant in the 1970's.

Coming soon: Albania.

Project: World

The other day, reading an article in the New York Times about some country or other, I began to try to picture the location of the country. Sadly, I realized that I could not name the countries that bordered said country. What more, I found myself truly hardpressed to say anything about this country at all.

Later that night, I awoke from a fitful sleep. Unable to get more rest, I lie there thinking, and in a momentary flash of nighttime insight, came up with an idea: I would read one book about every country in the world, thus attempting to gain at least some rudimentary knowledge of the history, the culture, and the geography of each nation. I would approach the world alphabetically, thus avoiding any bias and ensuring full world coverage. For ease's sake, I would only concentrate on "recognized" nations, thus ignoring such countries as Abkhazia (not an internationally recognized country, but rather considered a part of Georgia). I imagine that in cases such as this one, I will nonetheless learn of the disputed areas (thus, in my readings on Georgia, I will surely come across information on Abkhazia, etc.), and my list will remain somewhat approachable.


How many countries (books) will you research?

There are 192 UN recognized countries in the world. In addition the Vatican (Holy See) can be considered a nation-state. I therefore plan to read 193 books.

Won't this take you a long time?

I read rather quickly, but yes, I do imagine that it will probably take over a year.

What kind of books will you be reading?

I have decided to be rather wide in the genre scope of this undertaking. If I were to only read history books, I know that I would drop the project very quickly. I have therefore decided to read any book that I feel will help acquaint me with the culture, history, and geography of a country. Some fiction, some non-fiction, some travelogue, etc.

So, I will soon present the first installment in what I hope will be an exciting and succesful undertaking. Stay tuned for Afghanistan.

03 January 2007


Sorry the incredible lack of posts lately. I've lost editorial steam, and I'm working on getting it back.

I'm also trying to quit smoking, so my patience is thin and my concentration is a bit awack. I have got a new camera, however, so hopefully I'll be posting all sorts of incredible things soon.

I hope that all are well. Don't lose faith. I'm still here.